She looked up from her economical meal toward the sag in the ceiling of her one-room residence.
The girl, dressed in a ragged gown Noahdiah had torn from a widow’s shoulders in a foreclosure, gazed at her mistress with troubled eyes. She had been promised a new robe in lieu of wages.
Provoked, Noahdiah could not resist a word or two of admonition for the indolent, luxury-loving daughter of Mary. “Waste not, want not,” she said. “What you have is better than most girls your age.”
Yet the wastrel, who knew what other girls her age were wearing, began to cry.
“Yes, dearest Esther, I remember now,” she muttered, relenting a bit because of the flood of silent tears. “I’ll get that material for your robe next time I go to Caesarea. You must learn to wait on the Lord, my dear! Otherwise, you’ll never mount up on wings like eagles!”
Maryam’s daughter ceased crying and her face took on a hopeless expression. She had waited over a year, and every month her mistress said the same thing, though she had been to Caesarea a number of times to see to important business.
Not able to abide the girl’s sad eyes and face, Noahdiah scurried out the door. It was a beautiful morning! Nazareth, its bowing walls and oddly-aligned houses perched on the steep hill and shining as close to white as adobe could get, looked uncharacteristically clean and fair. But something was different, she soon discovered. Expecting the usual gracious bows and greetings as she hobbled to the marketplace, Noahdiah was given cause to wonder. People either turned their faces away and spat or gave her looks that make her good Jewish blood run cold.
Thinking Maryam’s daughter had spread a vicious rumor about town concerning the robe-business, Noahdiah returned the evil looks with four-fold interest. If this was the beginning of something, she would see it was turned last. She was not about to be intimidated by anyone, though she was a mere widow and her husband long dead of a bleeding stomach.
“Where is the money for it?” a scornful shopkeeper replied when Noahdiah wanted to buy a bigger basket for herb gathering. “Will we ever see the first to the last lepton of all that has been stolen from our mouths?”
Surprised her credit was being called in question in her native city, Noahdiah flung the basket away. She had known the fellow since he was a babe in arms. Now he had a shop of his own, inherited, of course, from his father, and presumed to think himself equal to her generation which built the town up from bare ground!
“You’re an old thief and shameless swindler, and I won’t let you have anything more without paying!” the basket-dealer rudely interrupted.
Suddenly, Noahdiah grew aware a crowd had collected. Both men and women were pushing into the shop’s narrow entrance, and the shopkeeper’s remarks grew more heated and pointed.
“Abagtha’s daughter, you’ve stolen the first fruits of our labors from us for years! And all the time we thought you were rich and believed your promises to pay us all eventually!”
The man paused to spit into a certain basket reserved for it; when he remembered, that is. The widow was flustered as she felt herself being jostled by the unwelcome crowd.
“What are you talking about?” she cried out. “I am a widow, a daughter of Moses, a mother of Israel and an honorable woman, and have stolen not so much as two leptons from anyone my whole life long!”
Hearing this declaration, the throng drew in a collective breath and nearly hooted the widow off her economical, rag-wrapped feet.
“Get out!” Bar-Simon shouted. “I refuse to waste my time on a worthless, sucking old maggot such as you. I’ve complained to the elders, and you’ll have to answer to them!”
Noahdiah found herself propelled out of the shop by rough hands and feet. She nearly fell in the mire of the street, deliberately pushed, she thought. As she struggled to get away from the disgraceful scene, the whole town seemed to know what had just happened. At every dooryard she passed a man or woman with dirty, ragged children stood, calling out imprecations and even hurling rotten things.
At the gate of the city (if an unwalled, ragtag community could be said to have one), things fared no better for Abagtha’s daughter. Elders who judged local civil suits according to ancient Jewish laws and customs had not always greeted her in passing with honor due a woman of substance and a widow of a former elder. No, she had kept every lepton of her money from their hands and purses and they resented her for it. But at least they had grown to respect her right to make money and had left her alone after finding she could always outsmart them. Now, today, their eyes fixed on her as if she were a criminal. Their faces, to the last man, looked so stern she wanted to turn and fly to her house.
It was, she knew, always best to seize the initiative among her slow-witted Nazarenes. Why not take the offensive and register a complaint? So she stepped briskly up to the chief elder and bowed curtly. Normally, she would get a few bows in return, but, no, everyone remained stiff as boards.
“What has come over the people this morning?” she sputtered, when not one elder would greet her properly. “I have come, Old One, to complain of Bar-Simon’s disrespectful treatment of a poor widow when I went to buy a basket this morning at his shop.”
Her words seemed to drop and die at her feet. She could see at once they were not listening. Instead, several were rude enough to confer together, glancing from time to time at her. Finally, one stepped forward to speak with her as he leaned on his staff. “Abagtha’s daughter, you will have to settle these considerable claims and debts you have incurred over a number of years in our city.”
Noahdiah saw he was being handed a long parchment. With help he unrolled it and began reading off names and various amounts before she could protest. When he got well down the list she found her breath. “I don’t owe them any such thing!” she protested. “This is an outrage!”
The elder paused to give her a look of severe rebuke. “If you resist our commandment, we have no recourse but to take your lands and house and other properties to settle these claims against you.”
“Take my lands and house and I’ll foreclose on this entire town!” she tried to say but could not finish. Her face erupted with great drops of perspiration. She shook her rag-wrapped head in disbelief, and threw up stubby, ruby-beringed hands. “I don’t believe this is happening to me! I am an honorable woman, a mother of Israel, and I swear by God I have defrauded no one in this town all my life and widowhood!”
The whole company of elders gazed at her in shock, as if they had heard the greatest sacrilege capable of being uttered in orthodox society. Again, as at the basket-dealer’s, a throng gathered. A low, grumbling sound went through their ranks, and Noahdiah heard it and turned round to see the mass of angry and sullen people, many of whom had suffered foreclosures and the seizing of their property by her bailiff from Caesarea.
“No wonder she bore no children to poor old Shimei!” a mother of five sons shrieked. “She dares to call herself a mother of Israel, yet a righteous Judge cursed her womb barren as rock!” A divinely cursed womb, of course, was the worst charge that could be leveled against a woman, and even Noahdiah failed to think of a suitable rebuttal. Seeing a real threat against her life for the first time, Abagtha’s daughter edged away from them, turning an appealing look to the elders. They shook their heads and declined to help.
Continuing to retreat, Noahdiah stepped as quickly as possible from the city gate. Even as the widow fled back up the road homeward, pelted by stones and filth thrown by jeering men, women, and children, an important writ was being published that would fully explain why her world suddenly turned upside down.
Unknown to the Nazarenes, who normally had no connections with affairs of world trade, a Roman official handed Noahdiah’s bank agent in Alexandria, Egypt, a royal decree. Lucius Sejanus the wily emperor’s favorite had passed a law in the Senate with Tiberius’s signature which declared the Alexandrine syndicate in bread-corn an illegal monopoly and enemy of Rome. All its assets were to be confiscated and turned over to Sejanus’s safe-keeping.
Noahdiah was utterly mystified by the ugly change in her dull, plodding, usually trusting Nazarenes. What had destroyed her credit overnight? A woman of profound economical instinct, she should have guessed it. In those days news (official news) traveled much more slowly than rumor and native intuition. However the common people knew things before they were officially notified, they somehow knew--and it had been that way so long the public authorities firmly believed there had to be spies everywhere.
Hurrying to Caesarea Maritima, she gained nothing for her trouble. They knew nothing, having not received official word from Rome. Finally and belatedly sensing the truth but not able to confirm it, she had been forced to return to Nazareth to stew and wait. It came at last.
The well-dressed Alexandrine’s appearance in Nazareth created much stir, of course. News of what he might be tendering to Noahdiah spread across town before he reached her tottering door. Shocked, he saw how frugally his rich client (though rich no more) had lived while he invested her millions in grain commodities and held them back from the Roman markets until prices soared.
Aided by a manservant, the Jewish banker got down from his two-wheeled, canopied cart and hesitated to knock on the rough-hewn, sagging door for fear of pushing it in on somebody. After a few taps, he paused and gazed with some anxiety at a badly-diseased branch of old, barren sycamore hanging smack over the dooryard, threatening life and limb.
Noahdiah sent her maid instead. Esther’s demure, tear-puffed face was the first the banker was to meet of that sad household.
The banker announced himself, and the girl disappeared for some time, leaving the door ajar. There was the sound of considerable bustle and perhaps house-cleaning being done before the door creaked again.
Her face flushed with excitement and anxiety, the mistress of the house opened up in person. She graciously offered him the best chair. It was new--so new it was came decorated with wood chips and splinters. Contrived by Joseph’s first-born James and paid for by credit, it threatened to spill the large man at any moment onto the dirt floor--right beneath the ominous bulge in the ceiling.
The guest glanced up at the ceiling, shifted uncomfortably on the misaligned, tipping chair, and decided to make his visit as brief as possible.
Noahdiah, already feeling the worst in her bones, sent Esther out to gather fresh rue for dinner. Then she composed herself for the bad news. She suspected she had lost hundreds of sesterces for some reason and was ready to upbraid the man severely.
The banker brought out a parchment from a plain brown cylindrical case marked S.P.Q.R. From another case, the royal purple, he unrolled the decree from Sejanus. Reading for the widow, he carefully explained the implications of the Act of the Senate and the letter of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, point by point. He had not got through Sejanus’s letter when Noahdiah, with her sharp nose for business, asked him point-blank how things stood.
“How much of my good money have you lost to this thief of a Roman? You bribed him, of course! What was his price?”
The banker threw up his hands. “Madame, you can bribe the Senate, but you can’t bribe this man! He’s a veritable wolf in the sheepfold! We all lost fortunes, my good woman! You are not the only one! But in your case, I must sadly report that Sejanus was particularly thorough in collection. Every drachma, every sesterce, every lepton of yours has been utterly lost!”
Just as happened whenever she sat down on a goat’s beard burr, a terrible shriek pierced the crumbling adobe walls of the shack. It carried all the way through Nazareth to the city gate.
As it happened, the Alexandrine’s doleful account of Noahdiah’s fallen estate was but the beginning of her misfortunes. The banker lost no time after his announcement and fled the wailing old woman.
Then the elders of Nazareth, emboldened perhaps by the banker’s appearance and disappearance, presented themselves at Noahdiah’s door within a day or so; and they came prepared.
Noahdiah came to the door dressed in the sackcloth of mourning the passing of a loved one. She wept sore as they read out charge after charge against her local holdings, a total accounting of the debts she had incurred in town, with the names of all those who demanded redress immediately. Covering so many years, it was an immense project for a small town, and hundreds had eagerly affixed their names (and seals, if they had any) to the document. Attaching all her goods, flocks, and properties required an additional scroll. Then, with the power of their office, the elders began to allot the spoils to the claimants.
When Noahdiah clung to her house, dousing her head with fresh ash and soot from time to time and refusing to go out, her niece Maryam had to send some food with Esther to keep them both alive. Meanwhile, the estate quickly dwindled, until one day an elder appeared at the house.
Noahdiah refused to answer the summons to the door. No matter, the elder was not to be snubbed. He called in through a big crack in the door while Esther’s frightened eyes stared out at him. “It’s not what you think, Abagtha’s daughter! I bear good tidings! I don’t know how such a thing can be, but heaven has smiled on you. After dissolving your holdings, all your debts have been paid in full, and you still have half a penny, or two leptons, coming back to you!”
There was dead silence, then a shrill, bitter laugh from inside the house. “Take the wretched money, girl!” the mistress commanded the maid. “And mark well how they treat a mother of Israel! Yet, heaven be praised, we still have my holy father’s house! And a good Jewish roof over our heads and my poor, gray hairs!”
Actually, it had never been her father’s. Nor her departed husband’s. Upon their deaths, she had sold her parents’ house for a good sum, then taken up residence in a widow’s shanty on which she had foreclosed, evicting the woman and large brood of children.
Then the man went away, still shaking his old head over the unexplained two leptons.
The next day a poor potter’s family arrived at Noahdiah’s house with their few sticks of furniture and belongings in a hay-wan drawn by a borrowed donkey.
The astonished widow peeked out the hole in her door after hearing Esther’s flustered report.
“The elders did not tell you this house and goat shed and adjoining field are ours?” they said to the widow after she refused their demands. “But it is ours in payment for the fine water pots you stole from us for years, and you must get out immediately, do you hear?!”
There followed a terrible scene, in a town that had already seen many of the like, thanks to her Roman bailiff.
The defendant claimed the shack was worth much more than a few old pots that leaked like sieves and went mushy and crumbled after being used only a few times.
Not buying anything she said, the plaintiffs laid siege, and the embattled widow fought back bitterly with potsherds and Caesarean stevedore oaths, but, of course, one old woman fighting alone could not win. Besides, townspeople drawn into the fray all supported the potter and family in their claim.
With so many helping hands, Noahdiah presently found herself on the street next to the gutter, a few clothes bundled together and a cracked water pot thrown at her feet. Of course, the valuable ruby rings and carnelian bracelet had been stripped from her.
Exposing their true colors, they had even taken her ring with the black mourning stone, the adamas she had faithfully worn since the day her dear Shimei was gathered to his fathers. She was still sitting there when Yosef’s widow came rushing to her aid.
Noahdiah had been through a lot lately. But she had not lost her senses. She gazed at her dull-witted niece and saw instantly how impractical the thing would prove. Recent, terrific reverses might explain her sharp tone as she let it all come out.
“Even if your good-for-nothing were raised from the dead, you certainly could not afford to keep me, yourself and the family. How can you put me up as I am accustomed? What you have is mine, you say? Ha! You have nothing! Nothing!”
Hearing this, Maryam’s tears had always been easily provoked. But they streamed from her face as never before. When she regained some control, she turned doggedly to her aunt.
“You must come to live with us,” she insisted. “You cannot stay here like this in the street. We are your own people and blood kin, and our door is always open.”
The word concerning relatives and an open door struck an immediate response in Noahdiah. She suddenly remembered she had kin elsewhere, in Jerusalem--a well-to-do great-aunt. Her face brightened at the thought. Rather than starve with Maryam and her disreputable, ill-starred brood, she saw her better prospects lay in a southerly direction, amidst Benjamin and Judah’s regal tents.
Regaining former spirit, Noahdiah called for her belongings to be gathered up by Esther, and then she consented to abide with Maryam awhile, that she might rest up for her journey.
Now it was the spring of the year, with fine weather and ripening crops of barley and bread-corn. Almond trees made pink bouquets dotting farmstead and hillsides all around Nazareth. Already pilgrims thronged the roads, going up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Passover Seder.
Not having means to go, Noahdiah lingered at Maryam’s until well after Passover. She even tarried until the time of the Festival of Shuavot drew near, when Nazarenes customarily went up to Jerusalem to offer two loaves of leavened bread at the Temple, made of wheat from newly harvested crops.
Meanwhile, Maryam was hard put to satisfy her aunt’s incessant demands. Her savings soon dwindled as everything saved and presently earned went for delicacies shipped in from Caesarea. Yet nothing seemed to satisfy the old woman. She still made a great noise about her going up to Jerusalem, though everybody knew she couldn’t really afford the journey.
One day, thinking to provoke the means out from its hiding place, Noahdiah announced she was going and strode to the open door, means or no means.
“Forgive me,” Maryam said to her expensive aunt on this clear sign of final departure. “We only have this bit of money left to give you for your expenses--from the sale of poor Yosef’s chair.”
Noahdiah snatched the solitary silver piece from Maryam’s trembling hand without a word. She bravely turned her face like a flint toward Jerusalem, the same way she had turned it many times toward farmers and widows in foreclosures.
Leaving the house without touching the mezuzah, with Maryam weeping with her daughters gathered round her, Noahdiah set off toward the public road, walking across fields recently bright with yellow rue and sky-blue flax flowers.
“God go with you, dear Auntie!” cried faithful Esther, still dressed in a foreclosed widow’s shabby old robe. “Won’t you stay longer with us? Why must you go?”
Pausing to sit beside the highway to rest, she took a bite from the scanty lunch her niece had packed. It was then the grim reality of her reduced circumstances struck without mercy. The morsel of Maryam’s bread and cheese reacted on her like chaff and straw and gagged in her dry throat. She choked to the point of passing out. Finally, she coughed up everything and gained relief, but for her situation there was no easy remedy.
Terror swept the old woman. Her brave showing in front of her relatives forsook her. For the first time she saw what she had become. With no livelihood to her name, no hoarded money, no husband and house, not even a goat-shed to crawl into, she was as good as dead in that society. Only the thought of her well-off great-aunt, wallowing in luxury and bound by the law of Moses to help poor relations, forced her to her feet and kept her on the hard, danger-strewn path to Jerusalem.
Fearful for her virtue, she refused to sleep outdoors the first night on he road. She took an upper room at a wayside inn and was charged a full silver piece for a night’s lodging and a chamberpot. Only when she left the inn the next morning did she realize she had no money for food--she had spent everything she had for a nice, clean, safe room and bed worthy of a mother of Israel (and it proved far from clean and had no chamberpot). Worse, the bugs were intolerable. Swarms of tiny, black, bloodthirsty mites had attacked her the moment she stepped into bed, and she hadn’t snatched a wink of sleep the whole night.
As for the two miserable leptons sewn in her hem, she remembered a time when they would have bought two hefty loaves of wheat bread at the baker in Nazareth. Roman inflation had ruined the value of good money. Now even a single, small loaf was not to be had at that price.
Noahdiah started. The names were familiar, since she had once upon a time tried to seize the fishing business, but the subject was not the same with strangers and in her present distress, so she wagged her head.
“God has been hard on you, old mother!” the young fellow responded as she began her sad tale of her lost, confiscated estate.
“Yes, indeed He has!” she cried. “I can’t tell you the half of it! Why, all the townspeople and even my brethren turned against me and stole all that I had! They left me lying in the street, in the cold and rain! My own blood kin did that to me after freely sharing my well-stocked table for years!”
“Terrible! Terrible! You mean our own people could act like that to a mother of Israel? What are we coming to in Holy Israel? Why, you’ll never make it to Jerusalem alone and so penniless!”
“Yes, you are right, son of Moses. Doubtless I will be set upon by robbers and Samaritans before long. When they find I have not even a lepton, they will murder me without pity. That is the way of evil men and idolaters, you know. Consigned to perdition by a just God, they’ve grown hard-hearted and have absolutely no respect for a mother of Israel.”
Near to tears, the compassionate young couple, both well-employed vinedressers, kindly forced her to take their lunch. They passed on, still shaking their heads in sympathy for the much-abused and destitute mother of Israel.
Similar days passed, but less and less successfully. For some reason the hearts became harder. Sometimes she was given a little food by passers-by, but increasingly they laughed at her improbable tale. “Do you think me such a fool I would swallow such prevarications?” one well-dressed Levite on a horse returning from Passover Temple service shouted at her. “And why weren’t you at the Passover, you lax Jewess! Begone, wretched thing!”
After departing Galilee and the closer she got to Jerusalem, the more unfriendly, hard, and suspicious people seemed in response to her story. In Nazareth everyone was more than willing to succor a stranger in need, knowing that was fulfilling some holy law; but she sensed that Jerusalem’s holy mount somehow meant less among Judah’s tents than in Napthali and Asher’s. How could that be? she wondered over and over. She herself was of the royal tribe of Judah. What a strange world it had become! Now that she had no money, it had turned most strange and alien.
Consequently, she suffered true hardship. The road was filled with Jerusalem-bound traffic, everyone carrying wheaten loaves and other first-fruits, but none took her plight to heart. Refused help, she struggled on alone, friendless and starving. Forced to apply a gleaner’s ancient right under the law of Moses, Noahdiah crept off the road into the adjoining vineyards, which were high-walled and difficult to penetrate.
She got little but scrapes and bruises for her efforts from climbing the wall. Pelted with rotten cucumbers and run off by a watchman, Noahdiah sat by the roadside recovering from her bad fright. She heard a queer, keening sound that startled her out of her misery. It seemed to be a degree human in origin.
Noahdiah peered closer at the approaching shape of filth.
“Eeek! Dearie dearie!” the misshapen creature cried, as it sidled warily toward the widow. “Eeek, eee-kkk!” Dust-caked and amorphous as a dirt clod, the shape suddenly gathered courage and scurried up to Noahdiah before she could get away. From beneath layer after layer of rags, a dark, dirty face and a wagging finger appeared. “No, dearie, no, no, no!” the creature remonstrated. “That’s not the way, you gets hurt, dearie, yes, they hurts you if you does it that way.”
Since she could not escape, Noahdiah made acquaintance with a fellow down-and-out. Noahdiah wanted absolutely nothing to do with this contagious dirtbag, however, and started briskly walking, but the seeming widow, burrlike, caught and tugged at her garments.
“Now watch us, dearie, watch us!” The thing darted to one side of the road, where it adjoined a fine, walled vineyard. A sturdy watchtower built of stone stood amidst the heavy-laden vines. Then, finding a way in, she disappeared. Noahdiah, fascinated, stood waiting to see what would happen. Moments later, the little widow danced out from the same vineyard, with hands full of juicy fruit.
Greedily munching, the two said nothing for several moments. Finally, Noahdiah had to know, and the little widow cackled. “Eeek! Eeek! we goes straight to him. The watchman looks out at us, you see! We moves in closer, so he sees us good. Then we picks these froots before he stops us. He rushes then at us with a big, big stick, but we says UNCLEAN! Eeek! Unclean! and he lets us go, with the froots, dearie, with the UNCLEAN froots! Hee hee! He’s glad we tooks them all away, dearie! He’s so glad!”
Noahdiah was appalled. She spat out some half-chewed grapeskins.
“Leperess!” she cried out as she sprang to her feet and backed away. “Why didn’t you tell me! The law says you were supposed to warn me!”
The little widow wagged her finger at Noahdiah and continued munching. “O no, dearie, that’s only what we says, and they always lets us have everything we touches. But we’s not unclean, dearie! O no!”
Noahdiah still wasn’t so sure. She looked the widow over. Perhaps the creature was lying. Perhaps she really had the agonizing, sin-spawned contagion that ate away skin and bones and made oozing, bloody stumps of arms and legs.
The rag-bag came close enough to be smelled, shaking her finger at the shrinking Noahdiah. “Now don’t we knows what you thinks? If us has that, us has no fingers and toes, even our nose begone!” The dirtbag laughed, showing yellow teeth and a dirty but intact nose.
Whatever the case, the little widow’s ruse succeeded in gaining them enough sustenance to continue their journey.
“Where are you going?” Noahdiah asked, sickened by such low company as soon as she felt better.
“Eeek! Holy Jerusalem! Lydda, Joppa, Dora. Then someplaces else. And someplaces else. And Holy Jerusalem! That’s the way these bones goes, eeek! Can’t stop ‘em. They just goes and goes, round and round!”
“Well, I am going straight up to Jerusalem,” Noahdiah told her. “I have a rich relative, a godly temple woman, who will be taking me in for life.”
She realized her mistake the moment she spoke and saw the widow’s mouth gape and drool and her eyes fix on hers. Now there would be no getting rid of the clinging burr!
Seeming not to mind, the burr clutched at Noahdiah’s robe and followed her into Samaria like a simple-minded child. The pair in widow’s weeds drew little attention for all their queer aspect. Now and then small boys ran out from villages to throw stones, because they were strangers and might be Jews, but their elders left the women alone.
The burr’s trick of the beggar’s trade worked regularly like magic. It gained them fat melons, squash, and more grapes oozing with sweet juices than they could consume in a sitting. Once, however, she tried it on an imported Roman chicken outside Sebaste. This particular fowl being rare and prized in Samaria, they were driven off despite her cries of “Unclean! Unclean!” Undeterred, she seized on a fat piebald goose at another place east of that city, and the terrified farmer, thinking she was casting a magic pox on him, let her carry it off, so feared were the pox-hurling witches of Samaria.
Noahdiah and her friend feasted on the excellent roast until they could eat no more. Afterwards, they were sleeping during the long, hot midday in some trees by the roadside when Samaritans surrounded them. All the men were bare-legged, lusty fellows out of work and needing just this kind of diversion--two lone, unprotected females who might treat good men such as themselves with women's charms--willingly or unwillingly. Loins girded, they carried stout, oaken clubs.
Noahdiah’s burr, no match for so many, gibbered with terror. “Eeek! Eeek!” she cried, seeing it was useless to flee such strong and burly attackers.
Was Abagtha’s daughter dismayed? Not at all! Though rueing the day she set foot on the road to Jerusalem, Noahdiah had dealt with men before on their own ground, as a past broker in the international market. She rose up, gathering all her wits and womanly strategems. “Would you molest an honorable widow, and she who is a holy mother in Israel?” she accosted them sternly.
Come expecting to teach a hard lesson to these passing strays from Jewdom, the men paused. Hot blood suddenly flowed in another channel entirely as they began heatedly discussing the old woman’s provocative challenge. Finally, one with a brighter head and more agile tongue took the lead. He began to argue with her on the relative merits of worship on Mount Gerizim, the Samaritan holy place.
Delighted that her bait was taken, Noahdiah was eager to counter his claims. She asserted unquestionably superior right of the Jews to establish Jehovah’s temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. The whole theology of the question was so embroiling that Noahdiah and her burr did not get away until every point at issue had been declared and contested.
Seeing the old Jewess with the gifted tongue could hold her own, and then some, the Samaritans relented. They even forgot the stolen goose in the higher interests of their religion. But they insisted on taking the two women to the city gate, that they might answer next to the revered eldership on this question of paramount importance to Jew and Samaritan.
Peter, James, Yohanan (Zebedee’s son, not Elizabeth’s, who had been beheaded by Herod Antipas for preaching against his taking his brother’s wife in marriage), Judas, and the others had gone into town for food, leaving their Master alone. They were very thirsty too, for the disciples had no vessel to reach and draw the water deep in the well.
A woman--once young and attractive to men and now beginning to be old and undesired--slowly approached the well, followed closely by a local fly which bit and dogged her heels. Not seeing any women from the town, she darted forward, so that her shawl slipped from her head, revealing gray, henna-streaked hair, painted eyes, and a full, red mouth--all that might once have laid claim to beauty despite a prominent nose.
Straightening her head-dress, she pulled up abruptly, having almost missed seeing the strange man seated beside the well. Her pause was slight. She had seen many such travelers passing through the district. With a quick glance at the man, she turned aside to her own business and went to draw her supply of water for the day. The lines in her forehead and around her mouth creased with the effort as she let her large vessel, fastened to a rope, slide slowly down into the dark depths. Hauling it back out took greater toll on her strength. She stood panting for several moments, before turning to hasten back to her home before any townspeople caught her drawing water like a common servant wench.
Just then the fly at her heels took the opportunity to attack her unprotected cheek. To ward it off, she struck with her hand and almost lost her vessel in the well. An old Samaritan curse, having to do with the rival Jewish temple on Mount Moriah, slipped from her lips as she caught the jar just in time.
Remembering the man nearby, Basemath (thought to be a name of great antiquity and honor in Samaria) drew up her shawl with dignity and prepared to take leave of the well. Feeling time had been wasted, she felt the need to return home quickly. Her man would not be in a pleasant humor if she delayed any longer with the water for his before-and-after-dinner lustrations.
She gritted her teeth as swung the jar to her head and started down the stone steps, passing by and forgetting the stranger, while she recalled how her man had refused one day to marry her or even continue work as an agent in Samaria for Herod Antipas, King Herod’s successor. Yet he still insisted on observing all the other proprieties and even went to the city gate every day to sit with the town elders. Meanwhile, she was being eaten and drunk out of house and home by the glutton and wine-bibber, until she could no longer afford to hire a maid to draw water.
Basemath almost missed the last step down, her fury was so great. Her eyes were blinded with bitter tears. What could she do? she cried inwardly. Men ruled society, and if he so much as complained to the elders they would enforce the well-known law against adultery and she was finished. She had married beyond the legal limit of husbands, and now her latest had played false. If only she might get away to that conjurer in a nearby village who could, for a fee, apply certain spells to the source of all her pain and heartache. But one thing prevented her from going again. Five husbands had expired mysteriously in her house. No one would believe a sixth.
Absorbed in her troubles, she was so startled by the voice of the stranger that she spun completely around, almost losing the jar off her head.
“Give me to drink,” the man said.
Basemath saw him really for the first time. It was as she had guessed. He was a Jew, betrayed by his speech even more than his appearance.
The man, she noted, did not rise from his place. Either he was too exhausted or did not wish to compromise her in a public place. She could plainly see the thick dust covering him from head to foot. A rabbi? No! She quickly dismissed that possibility. Jewish scholars and scribes would never condescend to ask anything of a woman from a race they despised as mongrel dogs, illegitimate, and given to alien gods and child sacrifice.
“If you knew the gift of God,” the man finally answered, “and who it is that says to you, ‘Give me to drink,’ you would have asked of him, and he would have given you living water.”
Basemath let her jar down so quickly it nearly burst. She fought to gain control of her racing emotions. Had she heard correctly? Had he really said ‘living water’? Was he a madman? Her blue-and-green painted eyelids narrowed, and she felt impelled to make sure of this man before she returned home. But how? She took a step closer, peering straight into his face, all her senses directed toward catching the slightest thing that might tell her which way the wind blew with this man.
“Sir,” she began, careful to address him with the unctuous respect that flattered presumptuous priests, “you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep. From whence then have you that living water? Are you greater than our father Yakob, who gave us the well and drank of it himself, and his children, and his cattle?” She leaned back on her sanded feet, confident that she had settled the matter. Now he would reveal he was a pious fraud, a strutting cock of a Jew who claimed things beyond his powers of religion. Even her witch-friend could not claim “living water” among her legion of potions and poison extracts!
Basemath also assumed she had further advantage. It was a happy thought, she congratulated herself, that she had remembered to draw the forefathers into it. For a Jew could not fail to seize the bait and fling a curse a daughter of Samaria was well prepared to return with interest. Yet moments passed and she waited in vain for victory. Instead, “living water” began to appear a beautiful thought, offering possible refreshment to soul and spirit on such a hot, hot day. Instead of rising in hot defense of “superior” Jewish claims to the right religion, the man smiled, an open, frank smile that contained no guile, no resentment, no challenge.
“Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again,” he said, nodding well-ward. “But whoever drinks of water that I shall give him shall never thirst. But the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing into everlasting life.”
All time seemed to stand still. Basemath’s shawl slipped completely away and lay in the flies and burning dust at her feet. Her heart was pounding. Never in her life had she heard such grace and wisdom, nobility and compassion, compounded in one human voice. “Sir,” she said sincerely, losing her whole defense in one foolish request, “give me this water, that I do not thirst, neither come here again to draw.” She stopped to gaze blankly at him, wondering what had happened to her own wits. Had she spoken those words?
“Go, call your husband, and come here.” His authority was unmistakable, and her neck went wet and cold.
“I have no husband.” She would have fled, but her feet seemed nailed to the hard ground. Her eyes looked up, homeward, with desperation. When she looked again at this man, his expression was so unbearably kind and full of pity she was cast in a panic.
“You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. In that you spoke the truth.”
Basemath’s mouth fell open in a hoarse gasp. Her eyes bulged and her face turned ashen, for she wasn’t seeing the man any longer but five, shadowy forms rising from the grave, all pointing accusing fingers and clutching stones ready to throw at her. And behind them stood one lone, tiny figure of a child--her first-born son, burnt in the flaming belly of her god. Basemath looked wildly about her. The shadows of the past dissolved instantly away, and she felt suddenly weak and withered in the heat, and as barren as her long-dead womb. Gathering her last resources of strength and dignity, she turned to the prophet, for such he had to be. Fortunately, she knew a thing or two about prophets. Drawing breath, she decided to ignore the prophetic utterance that still coursed like a fiery stream through her innermost being.
“Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.” Purposely, she turned toward Mount Gerizim, the nearby site of the Samaritan temple that, though ruined, commemorated the Art of the Covenant passing through Holy Samaria. “Our forefathers worshipped on this mountain,” she continued, still skirting the issue of the fiery stream. “And you say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”
Instead of spitting as a Jew would at her provocation, the man gave her a look of appreciation that utterly disarmed her. “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship you know not what. We know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such to worship him. God is a spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”
Worship the Father! Worship in spirit and in truth! The man’s words rang like the mighty blows of an iron-smith’s hammer on the anvil. But such heavenly concepts were as bewildering as living water. Yet he had spoken only as a genuine man of God could speak, even with truth beyond men’s knowing. Whom am I dealing with? she wondered, for not one living Samaritan elder, she knew, could have revealed such profound things,and so graciously.
“I know that Messiah will come, who is called the Anointed. When he comes, he will explain all things of mystery.” Basemath paused, wondering what had taken possession of her. Was she the same woman? Had this man--prophet or no prophet--bewitched her?
The man’s expression became most grave, while retaining its deep and tender expression. “I that speak unto you am He.”
Her heart must have stopped beating. There was not a sound or movement anywhere, as the words sank into her being. They gave her a strange thrill, so that she felt a girlish laugh rising up in her throat.
Feeling somehow silly and exposed, she looked down, noticing the dust on the frayed hem of her best garment. Once it had been a fine imitation Tyrian purple, now it was burned dull red and brown by too much heat and going about at the sixth hour to get water. In a flash of images impressed on her inner eye, she saw something more beside the frayed hem. Samaritanism, its glory sunk, rose up before her.
Their whole way of life and religion seemed now only a rag of tarnished vanity and presumption, emptied of life and meaning.
She also saw her life. It looked just as vain and empty as her religion, and tears swelled up in her eyes.
She glanced over the vale clefting the two mountains in which her entire world lay wilting in the scorching heat. Once it had been a golden bowl, holding divine promise, but now it held nothing but witches, evil suitors, conniving, cruel elders who liked to put on the best robes for religious ceremonies after despoiling widows of properties and livings.
And Samaria’s grand temple was in ruins. That should have told them something, she thought. The "golden bowl" of their religion was a sham, serving only to shackle them in deep misery and hopelessness!
The man at the well watched her go and made no move to catch the top-heavy jar, which slipped the moment its owner turned away. Water from Yakob’s well was trickling uselessly down the road when the disciples appeared, coming back with food and drink.
Having glimpsed the woman at the well with their Master, they knew what had happened. He had been conversing with a Samaritan woman! A Jewish rabbi with a painted and bare-headed “who knows what?”! Shocked, yet careful to conceal the scandal, they offered Jesus the Samaritans’ wine with bread and cheese. Soon Peter was busily eating, while expounding some fine points of Jewish law that clearly defeated the major tenets of Samaritanism. He proceeded with rising voice, all with a full mouth, when his victim turned to the Master with a helpless expression.
Yeshua did not seem to notice Peter’s manners or Yohanan’s dismay. He turned instead to all of them after again waving aside repeated offers of nourishment. “I have food to eat that you don’t know.”
Everyone sobered, including Peter. He stopped chewing and began to think. But there was no time to think, for they all saw people were coming to the well, led by the wild, indecent woman they had seen running and calling people to come see her “anointed bones”. “‘Anointed bones’?” Judas objected. “She was probably raving about some coming sale on ointments and now she’s come to unload the lot on us!”
Yeshua gazed at the approaching crowd for a moment, then spoke again. “I am nourished by doing the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months and then comes harvest’? On the contrary, I’m tell you, look at the fields, they are white and ready to harvest!”
Peter glanced without interest at the barley fields all round, then back up the road to Sychar, stuffing one last morsel of bread in his mouth.
If Yeshua said anything more, his words went unheeded by most disciples as they gazed with apprehension and undisguised disgust at the mob of Samaritans led by a weeping woman.
“So, mother of Israel!” he began, with the slightest bow of respect for her claim. He then paused, to look about at his peers. They all stood with unblinking, rigid faces shrouding sudden, deep disappointment, since they could see at once that this affair was proceeding too quickly to a foregone conclusion. The interlocutor, the chief elder, continued. “We have here, Holy Samaria, one who says our holy place and temple ought to be in yon city on yon mountain!”
Immediately, stoical countenances all round him brightened.
Disdaining to mention the arch-rival, Jerusalem, and its temple on Mount Moriah, the chief elder then pointed dramatically with the butt of his staff directly south, though every mother’s son among them knew the direction. That was a clear cue for everyone to spit in the same direction, which they did. Unfortunately, the wind suddenly shifted and blew their direction, so the effect was not altogether what the chief elder had intended.
Keenly eyeing the women, for the occasion was one of great relish to him, the chief elder lowered his staff of elegantly carved myrtlewood and significantly tapped the earth several times. “But by no means will the presumptuous Jew win the day over Holy Samaria!” he declaimed, shaking his long, white beard vigorously. “And yet we have a report from this woman before us that we are sadly mistaken! She declares that our forefathers were wrong to mark this hallowed place as the seat of true worship and piety! She, an infidel, heretical Jewess, seems to think her word carries more authority than blessed Sanballat, Shesh-Bazzar, and Esarhaddon. Even Abraham and Yakob were mistaken, she would have us believe!”
Ignorant of the fact such personages would never have claimed these people as brethren, the crowd had no doubt he was speaking absolute truth. A murmur of thrillingly righteous indignation coursed through the gathered townspeople. Other elders joined in heated discussion, with much swinging of arms and pointing toward the Samaritan temple mount. Meanwhile, Noahdiah and her burr stood amidst the staring, jostling crowd, eyeing the ominous woodpile that seemed to plead for a flaming ember.
“Your heathen name, child of darkness?” demanded one of the elders.
Noahdiah bowed her head, thinking that might help her position. “Noahdiah, daughter of Abagtha of Nazareth, a righteous, orthodox man and--”
“And your daughter and cohort in doctrinal error?”
Realizing she had better take initiative while she could, Noahdiah looked squarely at the smug, old windbag. “She is not my daughter! I met her only recently, and being of unsound speech and mind, perhaps she might be excused from this outrageous assembly.”
The chief elder responded with some irritation to her arrogant tone. He stepped forward, leaning heavily on another elder’s arm. “By no means will Holy Samaria defer and bend the knee to any Jew’s demand. We must first know with whom we are dealing!”
Noahdiah watched with a sinking heart as the witless beggar-woman was shoved forward by the crowd to answer to the old man.
“What do you call yourself, child?”
The dirtbag was struck as by a thunderbolt. She danced about rigidly, and would have continued her puppet-like antics but Noahdiah seized her.
“You little fool!” Abagtha’s daughter hissed. “ Quit that jerking and tell him your name immediately!”
“Eeek! Eeek! you ask our name? Eeek! You--”
Noahdiah, beside herself, shook the widow, who was slobbering with terror.
Suddenly, the widow straightened (if a clod could assume angularity). “Legion!” she cried distinctly, and broke into the most hideous cackling laughter. “Legion is our name!”
Everyone, including Noahdiah, fell back astonished as the lunatic laughter overwhelmed the scene, adding a few flourishes like donkey brays and rooster crows.
But the Samaritan elder recovered quickly and stepped closer, bending over the quaking widow. “That is a curious name, indeed. But I have long consulted the ancient lore and know its infidel origin. Roman, or Herodian in derivation, is it not? And does it not mean ‘stewpot ladle’?” On this important question, other elders had to intervene, which they did quickly according to their knowledge of ancient wisdom. The leader returned to the question, voicing the accumulated wisdom of the group.
“I must retract ‘stewpot ladle’ from the possible definitions of ‘legion.’ Rather, it seems to us that it means--”
Noahdiah saw she must do something quickly. Samaritan obtusity and gift for twaddle were most aggravating and getting them nowhere but the woodpile. “Worthy sire, she is not in her right senses. I pray that you excuse her. Questions of any kind only befuddle her wits and make her say foolish things.”
The elders all murmured approval at Noahdiah’s words. They conferred again with much nodding of hoary heads and beards. Then their spokesman with the myrtlewood staff again addressed her. “You have spoken well, Abagtha’s daughter,” he began. “But we still have not settled the larger claim at question here--the true location of the Temple, which we of this nation know to be our own holy mount, Gerizim.”
And so the question was contended as best Noahdiah could accomplish it. A lengthy hour or so passed, and still no one seemed to want to call a conclusion. Noahdiah was soaked with perspiration and fast losing patience as she rebutted one elder after another in the dead heat of day. Finally, a Samaritan woman interrupted the solemn assembly, her skirts flying indecently around her knees as she burst running into their midst. “A man at the well, a Galilean, told me all I ever did!” she reported to the people and elders. “Everything I ever did, the stranger knew and told me!”
Her words created an immediate sensation. How could this be? A stranger who could reveal secrets? the people marveled. For they all knew the woman, but the Jew she spoke of was a strange and could not know such things as furnished gossip for an entire town. And even though some had just sold food and drink to the man’s brethren, they had shown no interest in anything but the business that had brought them there.
“Could he be God’s Anointed?” the woman pressed them, looking them all straight in the eyes for a response. There was a gasp from the entire assembly. They all knew their holy tradition, and had long awaited the Messiah’s coming. “Yes, perhaps she is right!” a man cried out, throwing down his oaken club. His cow had lately miscarried under a full moon and so was disposed to unearthly signs and events. Another man spoke up. “Brethren, we all know this woman, her name, and her house. And yet she is speaking the truth. No stranger to our city could tell her what she had done in life, unless he had the mind and spirit of the living God!”
At this boldness, everyone gasped all the more. Taking advantage of their openness, the woman quickly related details of her conversation with the Jew. All listened, though his woman had married (and buried) five husbands and was defiantly living with another without his name. Meanwhile, Noahdiah observed a slattern’s tell-tale signs: painted face and gaudy attire, not to mention her shameless running about amongst the menfolks at all hours. For all that she ought to be stoned! she thought.
“He promised to give me living water!”
Now this, in Samaria, was something truly tremendous and unprecedented. All at once, the Samaritans wanted to go to the well and see for themselves, if all that the woman had seen was the case. The elders and their petty wrangle with a foreign Jewess, not to mention the prospective witch-burning--was completely forgotten. They hurried off toward Yakob’s well, the elders proving exceptionally spry.
Within a few moments Noahdiah found herself standing at the gate with a few dogs, too old or wormy to follow the crowd. But she was not alone. The burr-woman was very much alive! “Eeek! Eeek!” she cried, looking at the woodpile and tugging Noahdiah’s coattails. “We goes! We goes now!”
Noahdiah realized, with surprise, no one was holding them. They were indeed free to go, so she started off. But the burr tugged frantically at her. “No, not that way! He’s down there! He’ll kill us all! We knows him! O yes! He’ll drive us all out of our nice, nice house!” she cried with great quaking sobs.
Noahdiah pushed ahead anyway. Despite the danger of a retrial, she had to risk it. She must go see the man who had excited an entire town and was calling himself the Messiah. Her face fell, however, when she drew near and saw it was only Maryam’s first-born. “I ought to have known!” she bitterly exclaimed, turning to spit. She tried to pass unnoticed by the throng at Yacob’s well, so as to gain the high road to Jerusalem, but, unfortunately, the painted-up hussy who had started the whole disturbance recognized her.
“You there!” the brazen simpleton cried out to Noahdiah. “Come and receive streams of living water too!”
“Samaritan fools!” Noahdiah responded under her breath. She could see only a disgraceful scene of Jesus spouting nonsense to a lot of Samaritans stretched out in the dust, all moaning in shameless repentance and giving praise to God. She quickened her steps. She would have loved, in fact she itched to tell them some things about Mary’s good-for-nothing, but she thought better of it, being in a foreign land, Samaritan at that. Besides, these were heathen people. It wouldn’t do to display her hometown’s dirty linen to such a crew! With the burr still clinging and blubbering in terror, Noahdiah bustled off down the road and only slowed her pace when Sychar’s wall and gate were completely out of sight. Then she paused only to shake Error’s dust off good Jewish feet.
She need not have hurried. Though given plenty advance warning, Jerusalem was not the joy of the whole Earth as she supposed. As it turned out, neither were the people as holy as reputed. Asking the way, she arrived at the fine residence not far from the Fountain Gate. “I am Abagtha’s daughter, born and bred in Nazareth, a princess of the royal line of David!” she announced herself proudly to the porter.
“And I’m the Prophet Elijah in the Holy Writ!” the man sneered, slamming the doors. The porter, refusing to admit anyone so ragged and dirty despite her pretentious claims, kept her waiting in the street while he conferred her name to his master.
The doors swung open. “They know nothing of you!” the porter laughed in the open dooryard. “Old beggar, begone!”
“But there is some mistake!” Noahdiah protested. “My dear great-auntie would never keep me waiting out here in the street like this! What will her neighbors think?”
The porter coldly eyed the strange woman with the dust-caked garments and filthy, unwashed hair and moved to close the massive doors.
“Stop!” cried Noahdiah, seizing the doors. “Tell me, is there no elderly woman, my great-aunt Anna, living here anymore? I had a good report of her health only a year ago, when I instructed a muleteer leaving my city to give her my loving regards. Later he returned and told me she was well and looking to see me at the Temple, so I might go in and pray with her.”
The porter laughed again. “Are you tetched in the noggin, woman? The driver must have lied to you and never gone near her. The oldest living soul in this city, she passed away a year ago! And if you were truly related, as you claim, you would have known the fact!” The porter closed the doors. He drew them together and secured them with heavy, brass bars and bolts. All over Jerusalem, it was the hour for closing up shops and residences against the night with its roving bands of brigands. Respectable citizenry retired early according to old custom. All else took their chances in the streets.
Her hopes completely dashed, the stunned widow stood for long minutes, leaning against the closed gate. She finally started to pound on it with her stubby hands. She pounded until her fists were torn and bleeding. “Come back, you rascal! Blood relations can’t turn me out like this to die in the street!” she cried, though she knew her words were vain. “Don’t you know I am Anna’s beloved great-niece?”
That went on for some time, exhausting Noahdiah. Her protests grew more and more feeble.
“Dearie, dearie!” said her friend finally. “We goes now! Watch us, dearie!”
Noahdiah had forgotten all about the burr. She turned round, eyes bleared with tears and saw her fellow castaway, Widow “Legion,” coyly beckoning. Unsteady on her feet after the shattering of her last hopes, Noahdiah followed. After all, she had absolutely no other choice.